Mission Trips

A Reflection on Cuba

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This past Monday, I returned home from my first trip to what has been one of the most controversial countries in the Western Hemisphere. For most Americans, the island of Cuba is known for its cigars, classic cars and communist revolutionaries. However, beyond this perception are people. Real people with real lives that tend to get overlooked when we only see a country through the lens of politics and propaganda.

One of my favorite aspects about the trips that we take is that we stay with those who actually live in the country that we are visiting. We get to learn about a culture’s daily life by experiencing it firsthand, and we find ourselves in places that would never make it into the travel brochure. I went with the intention on serving and blessing the people of Cuba but found myself being blessed by a people who are too often misunderstood.

As I reflect on my experience last week, I am reminded of what God told the prophet Samuel when he was looking for a successor to King Saul. God said to Samuel, “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16)

How many of us tend to see the world as man sees it rather than as the Lord sees it?

How many of us view different countries and people groups based on how they are portrayed in political discourse, propaganda and overall popular opinion?

This past week was a reminder that I need to pursue seeing the world the way God sees it. I want to examine and engage people’s hearts rather than making assumptions or formulating opinions about them.

I also want to step into the shoes of others for a moment and see the world from their vantage point. Let us not forget that we have been blessed by a God who stepped down from heaven and into our shoes to dwell among us. Jesus came into our world and lived life from our vantage point. And in doing so, he became our mediator before God who is able to sympathize with our own struggles and experiences.

So let’s fight the temptation to stereotype and only see others from a distance. Let’s pray and pursue seeing the world the way God sees it. And let’s try our best to step into the shoes of others with a sincere heart and an open mind.

Our God is the Almighty Creator of this world who loves his creation and pursues people from every nation, language, tribe and people group on the planet. Jesus taught us that collectively we are all the new family of God with him as our good Father. So please pray for our brothers and sisters in Cuba. Pray for disciples to be made and churches to be multiplied and that the people of God there will seek the peace and prosperity of that country with a pure heart that remains devoted to their true King.

And please pray for the church here in America. We could learn a lot from our brothers and sisters in Cuba. Pray for a renewed strength that resists the temptations that come with living in the wealthiest nation in human history. Pray for disciples to be made and healthy churches to be multiplied and that the people of God here will put their allegiance to Jesus over and above all other allegiances.

Let’s join our brothers and sisters in Cuba and across the globe as the one new family of God. And let’s stay focused on the mission of God and make disciples of Jesus from all nations who love God passionately and love others radically.


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The Ride of Professional Baseball

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The game of baseball is a temporary train ride where the conductor orders most of the passengers off the train before they reach their desired destination. 

I spent over twenty years of my life as a passenger on this train, but a few weeks ago, it became apparent to me that it was time to get off. Baseball has been the air that I breathe, and the Major Leagues was always the desired destination. But just this past spring, after one last outing on Field 3 at the Orioles complex in Sarasota, FL., my life as an active player came to an end. 

Over the last couple weeks, I have been reflecting upon my professional career and the long road that has led up to this turning point in my life. And it has been during this time that I have perhaps stumbled upon an invaluable secret that so many players seem to miss along the way.

The game’s most valuable gift to you is found in the ride; not the destination.

The Ride

So many of us are so frustrated with where the game told us to "Get off" that we never take the time to focus on what the game gave us along the way. 

Although it was not a smooth ride, I am grateful for what the game of baseball has graciously given me. The game has taken me around the world — literally! I have forged lifelong friendships with people from all different cultures, religions and countries throughout the world. 

I have been given the humble gift of competing and playing the game that I love in front of thousands of people on the weekends but also the humor of playing in front of less than a hundred people during the week — my fellow minor leaguers know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing quite like the irony of playing a team called the Intimidators in front of a not-so-intimidating crowd of twelve people in Kannapolis, NC. (true story).

Baseball has also given me the gift of Unlimited Potential (unsolicited) All jokes aside, I could never write an honest reflection of what baseball has given me without mentioning the great men who have been so intimately involved in shepherding me and shaping me. These men who know my story best are well aware of the trials and setbacks that I suffered during my playing career. However, these trials became the very thing that God used to soften my heart and open my eyes to the wonders of how He works. I have come to a place in life where I can honestly rejoice in my suffering. 

 

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A New Destination

I gave my life to Christ during the 2014 season shortly after my first back operation. That definitive decision to lay down my identity as a professional baseball player and to embrace my identity as a new man in Jesus Christ changed my purpose in life forever. 

The desired destination in the game was no longer my greatest desire in life.

Life surrendered to Christ as Lord created a foundation and a future far bigger than any prior dream to reach the Major Leagues. No longer was my “Why?” focused on building Matt Taylor’s Kingdom; instead my “Why?” became a focus on what God wanted to do with my life. I began to seek relationships with my teammates and peers in a manner like I had never done before. The field, clubhouse, training room and the road became practical places to radically love, serve, encourage and believe in others.

 

What the Trials have Taught Me

We will all go through various trials in life, and it is naïve for us to ever assume otherwise. One of the greatest pieces of advice that I have ever received on enduring the trials that will come was from Levi Lusko’s book titled, Through the Eyes of a Lion. In the book, he gives some eye-opening details into the great trial of losing his young daughter, and it was this quote that has spoken to me so loud and clear:

“It is also crucial that you don’t wait for a crisis before you get these sorts of rhythms in place. You must train for the trial you’re not yet in. The worst time to try to get ready for a marathon is when you are running one. We made the decision as a family to plant ourselves in the house of the Lord before the bottom dropped out, and as a result, we had the root systems in place when we needed them the most.”

The most important thing that the ride in this game has taught me is learning to ask the question, 

“On what is my foundation is built? What is my identity rooted in? And is my foundation and identity found in something that can be taken away in just ONE moment or ONE pitch?” 

 

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I have written this with love for everyone who reads it. At some point along the way, the proverbial trails of life will ultimately come upon all of us. At some point in life we will arrive at a turning point. Are we building our foundation on the ever-present God who created heaven and earth and moves the mountains or are we putting all of our hope in something that can be stripped away at any second? 

For most of my life my foundation has been rooted in a game which could be removed from me at any point. My faith and hope has been placed in something that was neither eternal nor secure. However, it was the ride in the game that helped reveal that to me. 

Thank you baseball for helping me discover a passion and a radical love like no other, but more importantly thank you Jesus Christ for revealing to me that you are the stable foundation to build my identity upon. Life with you is eternal and secure. You are the cornerstone of my life, and I am forever grateful that God’s brilliant wisdom and powerful sovereignty used the most beautiful game in the world to change my heart and my future.

 

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Follow on Twitter: @MaTaylor24

 

A Reflection on Guatemala

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This past Friday I returned home from my third journey to a country in Central America that is capturing my heart. The weather always seems to be perfect, the scenic landscape is striking and the coffee is unmatched. However, it is the people that I have met along the way that continue to impress me and inspire me to keep coming back. 

On this most recent trip to Guatemala, there was a continual thought that kept coming to mind everywhere we worked and visited. That thought was this - I am starting to feel like family here, and here is starting to feel like family. And it was this strong sense of becoming family with my brothers and sisters in Guatemala that led me to learn more this year and then really try my best to serve those around me with the specific skills and gifts that God has given me to offer. I was reminded that... 


We are all stewards of our skill-sets.


Our gifts and skill-sets are the sacrifices we bring before God when we use them to serve others instead of just using them for ourselves.

I am a professional baseball player. The men who served with me are professional baseball players. God has made us such. Therefore, like we do on every UPI trip, we sought to use this platform and skill-set for the purpose of serving those around us. Doing this is like taking our gift from God and then offering it back to Him as a sacrifice upon His altar. There are definitely other ways to serve and many great causes that we can contribute to and should contribute to, but I have come to believe that there is something special and unique about using the very specific gift that God has given you to serve God and give back to others. This helps us remember that everything we have is on loan from God.


Our career is not our career.  


We are stewards of the career that God has granted us. Therefore, we are to use it for God's purposes, God's plan and for God's glory.

On this year's trip, we were able to provide nine free baseball clinics for kids of all ages, and many of these kids were the same kids that we have worked with on our first two trips. It's fun to watch these kids progress in their abilities and grow up as boys who are on their way to becoming men. It was exhausting service (especially my 12,000 pitch pitch-count), but it was a type of pouring ourselves out that filled us up with satisfying joy. 

We definitely received more than we gave. 

We owe a great deal of thanks to the Federacion De Beisbol Guatemala and the Gálvez and Javier Little Leagues for giving us the opportunity to serve so many families through the game of baseball. I am also very thankful for Luis and Chista Aquino who have graciously supported us from day one in more ways than I can even mention. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet my fellow professional baseball alumni, Luis Figueroa, who shared and demonstrated his passion for serving the youth of Guatemala and impacting their lives through the game. And I am grateful for having another fellow professional player, Manny Hernandez - the "2015 Guatemalan Home Run King" - helping us at the clinics and for his commitment to offer his skill-set to serve his fellow countrymen. I also owe a great deal of thanks to those not named (you know who you are) for the help and the incredible hospitality that has increasingly made Guatemala a home away from home.

After nine clinics in five days and after I gave up a grand total of 70 earned runs in two simulated games, we took a break from baseball and spent the last two days visiting two other ministries that are doing incredible work for God's Kingdom by serving Guatemala's kids. First, we got away for a refreshing retreat at The Opal House. The view from the back porch is always breathtaking, but the breaking of bread at the table is always authentic and life-giving. Thank you Will and Diane for opening up your home to men who eat like horses but for also being the much needed nourishment for our hungry souls. The time around your table has become a deeply treasured time to me personally, and your faithfulness and willingness to embrace tremendous vulnerability has challenged me to stop playing life safe.

From Will and Diane's, we set out to visit the Oasis Children's Home to play some soccer and softball with some of the strongest daughters of God that I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Corbey Dukes has been so generous to open up his doors so that we might be blessed by our little sisters in Christ. I am so impressed and inspired by the work of Oasis that I am compelled to share their story with others. The words rescue, justice, redemption, reconciliation and restoration come to mind which confirm that Corbey's team is doing the Lord's work in the difficult field that God has placed them in. After spending six days with the boys, these last few hours of our week with these wonderful girls is the icing on the cake. The trip to Guatemala would be incomplete without being blessed by a visit to Oasis.

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So it was a great trip with great opportunities to serve great people in a great country, but the one thing that always enhances the overall experience is the team that you hang with and serve with all week. Joel, Marilyn, Joeito and Sofia have gone above and beyond in making us feel like members of their own family. The sacrifice, hospitality and support this family has shown us cannot be articulated in words; it can only be felt and experienced in person. When you're putting in long days of baseball clinics, it makes all the difference in the world to wake up with a warm cup of freshly prepared coffee and a warm breakfast and then to come home each day to great home-cooked meals, conversations of laughter around the table, warm showers, warm beds and some free wifi on the back patio. Their home feels like home, and their family feels like family.    

And then lastly, I can't put into words the benefit of being able to serve with the same men for multiple years on this specific trip. This was Matt Taylor's third trip to Guatemala with me, Todd Cunningham's second trip and Sal Giardina's first trip. Team chemistry can make or break a trip and this particular team definitely made this trip a special experience. Matt's 2nd grade Spanish combined with Todd's love for avocado farming and then mixed with Sal's Italian eating habits creates an interesting week with a lot of laughs and memorable moments.   

I hope to serve with these same men for many more years to come as they hopefully add to our number in their own efforts to make disciples of Jesus. It has been a joy to serve with these men and to watch them serve the people of Guatemala with so much love and passion. They poured themselves out using their baseball skills to serve the kids, but I am also confident that most of the people we encountered could clearly see that there was something different and distinct about these men. We shared our stories, and we shared God's story, and at the end of the day, I am hopeful and prayerful that our God was pleased with our efforts.  

As followers of Jesus, we journeyed to Guatemala to serve the people there because of the way Jesus - the Son of God - came into this world to serve all of us. He lived the kind of life that we were made to live, He died to make us right with God, He was buried for three days, but then God raised Him from the dead. One day He will return to make all things right, and so until He returns, we continue to try to live like He lived and obey what He taught. And one special way that we have tried to serve Him is to by using our platforms and skill-sets to serve others. 

It is safe to say that we have fallen in love with Guatemala because God has first loved us. And so until He leads us otherwise, I look forward to every Autumn in the Land of Eternal Spring. 

  

A Reflection on Puerto Rico

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So I arrived back home late last night from my second missions trip to the great island and U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Upon returning, I feel an urge to write a small reflection on my overall experience during my week there. While it would be impossible to record an exhaustive account that completely portrays all the events, emotions and experiences that can encompasses a trip like this, I have attempted here to provide five brief reflections that provide you with a good overall perception of the great spiritual benefits of these types of trips. 

1. Travel Cures Ignorance

It's way too easy for us as Americans to view the world through our American lenses. There are an abundance of things that we have access to and the privilege to possess that we assume the rest of the world could and should have them as well. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple. We also have a tendency to view our way of life as the way life ought to be lived and assume the rest of the world should strive toward that end. Surprisingly, we would find that we have much to gain and learn from other people and other cultures rather than just our own. 

Keep in mind, I'm talking about a trip to a U.S. territory full of American influence and culture. Even there, we can gain an enlightening experience of a broader worldview that alters (in a good way) the way in which we view our lives here at home.

2. It's Better the Second Time Around

This was my first trip in which I was returning to serve with and among people that I had already visited before. I was surprised and extremely encouraged by the depth of relationship that had developed from my first visit. I would have missed this depth of relationship entirely if I had never returned to Puerto Rico for the second time. I would obviously encourage everyone to make every effort to participate in short-term missions trips, but I would encourage you even more to regularly return to the people and places where you've previously served. 

3. Faith Family Extends Bloodlines and Borders

Connecting with people from other countries and cultures who share the common faith in Christ opens up our eyes to see more of God's beauty and grace displayed differently than we're used to seeing Him. And not only that, but I was so moved emotionally at the brotherhood that exists among the professional baseball community. Former and current players connecting as brothers in the game and also as brothers in Christ is an astonishing display of love and Christian community that powerfully portrays the aspects of Biblical Christian community and what is meant by the church body. Men connected so intimately in this way who join together to serve Christ by serving communities can shake the foundations of this world.

4. The Privilege to Serve Rather than the Pressure to Save

Time and space doesn't permit me to share everything I'd like to share in regards to this concept, but I think I'm starting to understand how to best approach my brief time in other cultures among other people. There seems to be a common error that many make in their approach to short-term missions. It's the idea that "We're going to save the people of Puerto Rico." Although I agree with the idea, I disagree with this being our focus and motivation. I'll attempt to explain even though a longer conversation would provide more clarity. 

Typically, one of the main things we do on these trips is provide a free baseball clinic for whoever wants to participate. In doing so, we offer one to two hours of solid professional instruction before sharing our testimonies and the gospel with the crowds afterwards. If I approach these clinics feeling the pressure to save the people that participate, then I'm likely to perform the old 'bait-and-switch' technique where I've offered a free service in order to lure you in with an alternative agenda. This runs the risk of coming across awkward and insincere. However, if I approach these clinics simply as a privileged opportunity to serve Christ by serving people, then I'm offering a free service with no strings attached. I'm extending grace. I'm freely giving you a gift and not looking to get anything from you in return.

So what about proclaiming the gospel?

It's really not that difficult. Professional baseball players have left their families and their country to come to this obscure town in the middle of nowhere to provide a free baseball clinic for whoever wants to come? It begs the question, "Why would you do something like this?" And that is where I simply share with the crowds why I'm doing what I'm doing. It's natural and completely sincere, and what I believe to be the appropriate role for the short-term missionary. 

5. Embrace 'Plan D'

"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (Psalm 16).

If there's one thing this last trip to Puerto Rico confirmed in my approach to short-term missions, it's this truth. It is right, appropriate and beneficial to have a plan, but in doing so, we better be willing to hand that plan over to God for any alterations and edits He'd like to make. If we're simply there to serve then this won't be an issue for us. If we approach the trip with specific expectations and a set agenda then alterations to our plan can be discouraging and disheartening. We can have a plan, a backup plan and a backup to the backup plan, but we must be willing to embrace 'Plan D' which might be God's plan. 

We experienced 'Plan D' in a couple powerful ways over the course of this last trip. The first was a clinic in a rough area of town that failed to work itself out. However, we took this opportunity to play basketball and dodgeball with the kids from this neighborhood and shared our testimonies with them and some of their parents afterwards. It was a joy to play with these kids, and in doing so, we seemed to have earned the right to be heard as they were very attentive during our time of sharing. 

The next day, we had a clinic that was rained out and therefore found ourselves with some extra time on our hands. We decided to drive a couple hours out of our typical route home in order to visit with a former player who had served with us the year before. He was suffering from some fairly severe health issues and was discouraged that he wouldn't have the opportunity to hang out with us this year because of his inability to leave his home. The rain out gave us the opportunity to visit with him, and the joy that came from that visit is inexpressible. It was one of those moments that you know God orchestrated and wanted to happen. It was a Divine appointment, and one that encouraged all of us greatly. 

In conclusion, I know that I still have a lot to learn in regards to short-term missions, but I am learning. I'm thankful for my time in Puerto Rico and thankful for all the wonderful men and women that I had the privilege to serve with over the course of this past week. These are events in life that shape the character of a man, and I pray that with each experience, God continues to mold and conform me into the image of His Son. May God be glorified in all things, and may we all find our place in participating to share His gospel with all nations and with all people.